Monthly Archives: May 2008

Lamar 4 Buy Selves a Week or More

Before the legislation to pay the attorney was read into the record, Councilman Shields asked Councilman Motznik to chair the rest of the meeting.

Dumbfounded, Motznik asked that the President Pro Tem (Councilman Burgess) fulfill that duty instead, or failing that the Finance Chair (Councilman Peduto).

However, all four of them were fleeing from the room.

To considerable mirth, Councilman Motznik then ascended to the dais, and asked to bring the legislation to a vote. Councilman Dowd asked for a moment to review the rules of council, but discovering that the absences did not necessarily inhibit council’s power to act, Motznik went on to ask the clerk to read the bill into the record.

Motznik started the discussion by stating he was “a bit confused at the animosity” he and Dowd were receiving for requesting a legal opinion, as neither of them wrote the legal opinion themselves.

Dowd stated that “if there were any unintended consequences” of his raising concerns with the Law Dept, he “genuinely apologizes.” He also pointed out that the Law Dept had clarified for him that he personally had no conflict of interest in the matter, so he was free to vote after all.

The vote to approve the measure proceeded as follows: Councilman Deasy nay, Councilman Dowd nay, Councilwoman Harris abstaining, Councilwoman Payne aye (a surprise), and Councilman Motznik nay.

Interim President Motznik then began to say that by a 3-1 vote the motion failed, but several in the room corrected him that due to procedural issues of a failure to secure a majority vote, the motion was merely tabled. At this, the remaining four council members poured back into the room, having delayed the vote and having not admitted to any conflicts of interest.

Councilman Shields took control of the dais again, to Motznik’s amused chagrin.

The Public Interest: Supplemental

§ 308. PROHIBITIONS Members of council shall not:
yada yada
b. have a personal or private interest in any legislation proposed or pending before council, unless they;

1. disclose the fact to council; and,

2. refrain from voting or participating in the discussion of the matter;
yada yada

Members of council who violate any of the above provisions shall immediately forfeit their office.

Also:

Section 1102: DEFINITIONS “Conflict” or “conflict of interest.” Use by a public official or public employee of the authority of his office or employment or any confidential information received through his holding public office or employment for the private pecuniary benefit of himself…

With all that in mind, today we read:

Mr. Motznik said the four should have gone through a competitive process to choose a law firm, and then sought council approval before incurring the expense. If they want the bill to be paid now, they should do it out of their office allocations for staff and services, he said. (P-G, Majors and Lord)

Much seems to hinge on who will be identified on the invoice of attorney Hugh McGough, and to whom he ultimately would send collections notices.

Doug Shields and the other three members of Council acted forthrightly in the public interest, as public servants are to be expected. Yet if in the final analysis they acted with greater valor than discretion — if Mr. McGough cannot or will not simply bill the City of Pittsburgh directly — it is hard to see how the individuals named on his invoice will not be subject to the harsh strictures placed upon conflicts of interest.

It appears that Councilman Motznik is correct on this one.

(Pause for effect)

These four council members will have to recuse themselves or lose their jobs, it seems — or else take an extraordinary risk that some higher authority will side with them on the merits, considering the extenuating circumstances and challenges — a risk few politicians would dare take, let alone all four out of four.

How can we resolve new understanding this with our previous editorial? Very easily.

Since the work undertaken by Hugh McGough was both necessary and useful — since it was critical in engineering a good and valuable outcome for city residents — and especially since the city Law Department recused itself from fulfilling this responsibility for the council members as normally required — those council members who hired him in good faith ought to be reimbursed for their expenses, even if they cannot act to make it so themselves.

Council members Dan Deasy, Darlene Harris, Jim Motznik and Tonya Payne (and Patrick Dowd, if possible) should all support the legislation releasing these funds. Councilwoman Harris is already to be commended for comprehending the justice of this action. The others should follow suit, putting politics aside and declining to simply exact a measure of vengeance on Lamar Advertising’s behalf.

Better still, Mayor Ravenstahl should instruct the city Law Department to reimburse the four council members from its own funding allocation. It is not the council members’ fault that the Law Department was pulled in several directions at the same time during this fiasco, and it is certainly not their fault that they came up victorious.

To do anything less would be to invite a level of acrimony and mistrust into City Hall that would be entirely unnecessary, and would not heal quickly.

Schenley Community Failing to Acquiesce

“The problem is, because Schenley pulls from a lot of different areas, there are no board members to hold accountable” complained Jen Lakin, one of the Schenley parent-activists.

“Everyone feels that this board already made up their minds” added Stephanie Tecza, another Schenley parent, who ran unsuccessfully for the School Board herself. “At this point, we could stand on our heads naked, and nobody would care.”

Nonetheless, over forty parents and students attended yesterday’s public hearing of the School Board to protest the anticipated closure of Schenley High School, and to voice their displeasure at the High School Reform plan they believe is driving the decision.

“It’s technically like segregation of the school” said Ellie Tecza, Stephanie’s daughter. “That’s the dumbest idea in the world.”

“We’re doing better than other schools, if you look at Westinghouse or Peabody” said Freddy Hier, another student who organized the impromptu protest outside the building in Oakland. At the mere mention of “Peabody”, there was sniffing and chortling.

The academic performance of Schenley relative to other public high schools was often mentioned, as was the dubiousness of safety issues concerning the school building. By many accounts, the school is in much better shape than recent media reports have portrayed, and repairs would cost far less than the $60 million frequently reported.

After examining school board documents and making their own assessments, many attested with confidence that asbestos remediation could be completed for less than $5 million. The fact that students were allowed in the building this year proves that an asbestos scare of crisis proportions was fabricated to push forward reform plans, say many protesters.

A+ Schools also took on a share of criticism for adding an unnecessary layer of insulation between decision makers and constituents.

“Why is A+ Schools conducting community forums?” asked Debbie Levy-McKenney. “This is the responsibility of the School Board.”

“I will simply say that [closing Schenley] is a game-changer for many public high school parents, and I do not mean that in a positive way” said Barbara Danko, joining many who criticized the anticipated maneuver at a time when major initiatives like the Pittsburgh Promise are being unrolled to counter declining enrollment. Large poster boards touting the Promise and UPMC flanked School Board members during the hearing.

Schenley outperforms district averages,” pointed out Lakin during public comments, “and is the only majority African-American school to do so.”

Whereas parents were more likely to dwell on superior academic performance of Schenley High School students, those students themselves tended to focus more on the advantages of diversity. Ellie Tecza spoke passionately about her experiences getting to know students hailing from war-torn countries, insisting that was part of her education she would not have experienced elsewhere.

The term “segregation” came up again and again, particularly when reflecting upon the fate of Hill District students feeding into Schenley who will be reassigned to Milliones School, wheras International Baccalaureate students and Robotics students will be shuffled elsewhere.

“What are they going to do when they go out in the real world?” asked Lakin. “Schenley was the real world.”

We got to ask Superintendent Mark Roosevelt whether the cost of repairing the building was as low as many Schenley parents are claiming. Although he placed asbestos remediation costs at “about $10 to $17 million” — considerably lower than originally reported — the total cost of repairs would be far higher.

“The damn building was let go,” he sighed, explaining that worries asbestos put other necessary repairs on hold. Roosevelt continues to estimate the cost of saving the Schenley building at roughly $70-$80 million.

School district Chief of Operations Paul Gill told us that “the electrical system, plumbing system, ceiling, floor and wall maintenance had been deferred for years.”

When we asked whether these challenges were out of line with the many other ancient buildings of the school district, Gill conceded, “that’s a good question.” Yet he insisted that all the necessary repairs to Schenley would cost, by the latest estimate, $76.2 million.

Rumors also swirled in the gallery that Superintendent Roosevelt was currently entertaining offers from school districts in other cities, going on interviews already. Many were concerned that he would “abandon” the school district in the midst of half-completed reforms.

Roosevelt flatly denied the allegations.

“Not interviewing, not looking elsewhere,” Roosevelt assured us. “That’s just what some of them would like to see happen.”

Monday: Comin At Ya

It’s been a long race, getting past financial problems, trying to change corporate disinterest, rejecting dead ends and moving on toward a finish line, but after a five-year absence, the Pittsburgh Marathon likely will return next year. (P-G, Steve Levin)

Hooray!

Before its demise, the marathon had the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center as its title sponsor. But UPMC’s pulling out of that role following the 2003 event brought an end to the race.

We did not know that.

##

Of course, this campaign at its heart was always about discrimination. The dead giveaway was the inclusion of language extending the same-sex ban to “the functional equivalent of marriage,” which one doesn’t have to be an activist judge to interpret as civil unions. Banning civil unions would have nothing to do with preserving the sanctity of marriage. It would have everything to do with a powerful majority imposing its will on a vulnerable minority. (P-G, Edit Board)

Good point.

##

Barack Obama, Mrs. Clinton’s adversary and the media’s darling, vaulted to the front of the Democratic primary pack by promising to heal our wounds and mend our divisions. But this man who would transcend America’s tragic history of racism had as his pastor and “spiritual adviser” a man of the cloth who preaches racial hatred.

Hypocrisy creates the need for irony, but don’t point out this disappointing situation to Mr. Obama’s college-aged believers, however, or they will call you, weeping at your cynicism. Sigh.

You take a big step from childhood to adulthood when you realize that things are often not at all what they seem. (P-G, Ruth Ann Daily)

Sigh, indeed.

Does it not matter that Barack Obama publicly and vehemently rejected the offending sentiments, expressing to us all the points of his disagreement with extreme specificity? Are all pro-choice politicians who attend the churches of pro-life pastors also base hypocrites? How about the ones who believe in contraception? There are a multitude of reasons to attend church, or to be part of any particular religious community. To ascribe to Barack Obama one particular set of motives and understandings strikes us as a bit ungenerous.

More importantly — with this ever-present tone of condescending, wholesale dismissal of the great bulk of Obama supporters — we are beginning to realize that ageism runs both ways, and is outright approved of in one of them.

##

Some political insiders believe the relatively pricey fundraiser will line Ravenstahl’s campaign coffers to the point where no one will dare challenge him next year, when he has to run for a full term. (Trib, Whisper People)

Other political insiders believe that even a trillion skillion bo-billion dollars won’t keep a whole swarm of sharks away from this juicy morsel.

Madonna and Young conclude that Matthews is likely to run. “And if he runs, he will start the race well known, highly motivated and well financed. He deserves to be taken seriously.”

Chris Matthews will never be taken seriously. However, being a Democrat and all, we may well wind up voting for him anyway. We would need someone to make Al Franken appear serious.

##

Applications for more than 250 summer jobs for Pittsburgh residents 14 to 18 are available online at www.pghgov.com and www.thesca.org/pittsburgh, or at the Downtown office of the Student Conservation Association, 239 Fourth Ave., Investment Building, Suite 1007. (P-G, Team Effort)

Councilman Burgess has been outspoken in the media touting this endeavor, along with Mayor Ravenstahl.

##

One last big rally for Schenley High School is being organized to coincide with today’s School Board meeting. The cause of Frick Middle School is somehow in the mix as well.

When: Monday, May 12 [today] at 7:00 PM
Where: 341 S. Bellefield Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 (Between 5th and Forbes)

Presumably, they are less concerned with the handsome building than with the actual school inhabiting it.

Editorial: In the Public Interest

“They have a personal financial interest in this,” Dowd said of the four, noting that Pittsburgh’s Home Rule Charter states that council members must refrain from voting on proposed legislation in which they have a “personal or private interest.” (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

Although Patrick Dowd filed his appeal as a private citizen, he was sued by Lamar Advertising both as a private citizen and as a member of Council.

So either Lamar either didn’t understand the distinction, or it took Dowd’s actions as initiated only because he is a member of Council. A reasonable assumption, if nothing else about the lawsuit was reasonable.

Now. Because of concerns that Dowd’s appeal would be rejected by the Zoning Board of Adjustment due solely to lack of standing, Ricky Burgess, Bruce Kraus, Bill Peduto and Doug Shields joined the appeal as members of Council. In so doing, they basically carbon-copied the work of Dowd’s attorney and affixed their names and titles. Then they hired an attorney, as their position would need to be defended.

For their efforts, they also were sued by Lamar Advertising explicitly as members of Council.

##

Once Lamar went after these five Council members as Council members, with a real lawsuit in a real courtroom, they are entitled, right or wrong on the merits, to be represented at the city’s expense.

If one disagrees with the courses of action taken by any of the five, that is why we have elections.

It makes no sense to demand that city officials sued in their official capacity must either shell out for their own legal representation, or submit to the will of their accusers. Such a system would lead to weak leadership and to shoddily served residents.

In this case, it is lucky that the four did not turn tail and run from Lamar’s attempt at strongarming. It was only after the five were sued on bogus pretenses that Hugh McGough, the attorney contracted by the four, sprang into action in his own right — counter-suing Lamar Advertising in federal court.

It was obviously this maneuver that caused the belligerent advertising company to withdraw its own charges, and submit the electronic billboard to the ZBA and the Planning Commission in fantastically short order.

A stickler for process, Dowd objects that Council should have voted to retain counsel on this matter beforehand. Would Councilman Dowd have supported such a measure? Would Mayor Ravenstahl have signed it? One would have to ask them, though we suspect they would have recommended that the four seek aid from the City Law department.

Would the City Law department have opted to take Lamar Advertising to federal court, threatening to file attendant motions of discovery? The question scarcely survives its statement.

##

An immaculate process might have seen Council voting to retain a lawyer beforehand — but any hope of a pristine process was shattered by an up-is-down, black-is-white ruling by a city Zoning Administrator, and by a well-financed corporate interest assaulting those who dared to protest it with the encouragement of the mayor. To retroactively sanction this attorney’s activity would not be any high crime or subversive wickedness — it is a simple judgment call.

In short, there never was a “personal or private interest” at stake, and it should not be interpreted so. Attorney McGough did the taxpayers of Pittsburgh a considerable service in defending their rights to due process, thereby avoiding the establishment of onerous precedents that might apply to any neighborhood and on many issues.

He deserves to be paid for it, and no council member deserves to suffer for it personally.

Loading, Comet MAY SWEEPS PERIOD…

Friday: Just One Last Thing’s Been Bothering Us…

Pittsburgh’s long-strapped government has a healthy surplus, but shouldn’t lower its guard against overspending, city Controller Michael Lamb said yesterday in presenting the yearly audit. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Those of you who picked “It’s time to overspend” in the pool are out of luck.

##

Lance:
To Pittsburgh City Council. In a preliminary vote — 5-2 — it’s agreeing to pay the $11,000 legal bill of four council members who, on their own, sued to stop a questionable electronic billboard project. Indeed, the suing council members were on the right side of the issue. But they sued without the full council’s consent. Taxpayers should not pay for their freelancing. (Trib, Edit Board)

Minor factual inaccuracy: they joined a protest appeal with the Zoning Board of Adjustment, which is a routine and process-oriented approach. It was only when they got hit with a SLAP suit by Lamar that they counter-sued as an (effective) strategy to rid themselves of the annoyance.

All the same, the Trib does not approve. Feel shame.

##

Former councilman Sala Udin questioned the transfer’s legality because of a previous licensing agreement between the URA and the Hill Community Development Corp. that allowed residents to build a civil rights memorial on the land. (Trib, Bonnie Pfister)

It would be more instructive for Udin to speak out publicly on the circumstances surrounding the controversial draft Community Benefits Agreement, which is being voted upon tomorrow by the membership of One Hill. He can hardly avoid it.

Many Hill residents linked to Mr. Udin in some fashion have had their voting privileges formally revoked in One Hill, for having allegedly broken coalition rules, although One Hill continues to have no written bylaws. Bomani Howze, son of Mr. Udin, has been stripped of his elected role as Vice Chairman of the coalition, ostensibly for a conflict of interest regarding his role with the Heinz Endowments.

This would seem to be in keeping with Councilwoman Tonya Payne’s statement to the Comet that, “Carl [Redwood] and I basically started One Hill”, and did so to provide an alternative to the leadership of the insufficiently democratic “minister’s group”, now formally the Hill Faith & Justice Alliance.

##

The Comet is further troubled by two facets of the draft agreement.

First, it states that all development funds garnered from the Neighborhood Partnership Program will be administered through the Hill House EDC. Evan Frazier, lead negotiator for One Hill, is the executive director of the Hill House EDC — and Ron Porter, hired last year as the Penguins Senior Consultant in charge of negotiations with the community, is doing so only on a temporary leave of absence from its board.

Second, the CBA would require the community to stand down not only from protesting construction of the new hockey arena, but from protesting development upon the 28 acres on the site of the old civic arena. There are as yet no plans publicly available for the 28 acres, which would link the Hill District to Downtown. How that land is to be intelligently planned without active and at times necessarily contentious input from Hill District residents is an enigma.

The vote will take place over the course of the day tomorrow, not at a large community gathering, and will be overseen by One Hill leadership. We’ll have to wait to see what happens.

Thursday: The Fall of Camelot

City taxpayers will cover an $11,000 attorney bill incurred by four Pittsburgh council members in their battle with Lamar Advertising if yesterday’s first vote — taken after a testy debate — holds up in a final tally Tuesday. (P-G, Rich Lord)

Testy may well turn titanic.

Councilman Patrick Dowd, who also challenged Lamar and paid a lawyer from his own pocket, said council shouldn’t pay “after the fact” for an expense it never voted to authorize.

The several nuances of his position were effectively lost on the other council members, who had been caught up in a rapidly escalating war with the administration and its allies.

Councilwoman Darlene Harris joined the members who incurred the bill in voting to pay it.

Any more of this, and they’ll have to reassign seats.

“I was sued for $2 million,” Mr. Peduto said. “And you’re telling me I shouldn’t hire a lawyer?”

Typically, one does not pay out-of-pocket for legal expenses that one incurs on the job. The question is, did the foursome have to play their hand in the way that they did? Or was their hand forced by administrative and corporate malice?

At any rate, we believe this all a good argument for council activating § 310. A., and retaining in the future a humble attorney for the purposes of securing independent, timely and routine advice, and official or unofficial representation as necessary. A vigorous government can expect to have its share of intramural squabbles. Why pay retail?

Missing from the P-G account is the effect of Dowd’s decision to be content with Lamar’s agreement to send the LED billboard through the Zoning Board of Adjustment and the Planning Commission — while taking a pass on the golden opportunity to subpoena records of contacts between Lamar and the administration. Which might have been illuminating.

##

Weather permitting, crews will hoist UPMC’s giant letters atop the Golden Triangle’s tallest structure this Saturday. (P-G, Edit Board)

See, we already have one Fordian artifact being erected on Grant Street. One should be more than enough.

##

Speaking of all of the above, those who would be troubled by $11,000 going down the tubes due to legal tussles with Lamar would be apoplectic at the prospect of missing out on 14 months and $134,000 worth of planning and zoning expertise. Yet that may be the cost of the paid leave requested by Pat Ford and granted by Mayor Ravenstahl, while we await the outcome of a State Ethics investigation also undertaken on Ford’s recommendation.

Ford’s lawyer questions whether even a 2 month “preliminary” inquiry will be necessary, due to the nominal nature of the gifts.

The Comet, which is in agreement that a surround-sound system does not seem a major scandal make, continues to wonder how then our rather vanilla inquiry resulted in a hastily-arranged confessional to the Tribune-Review, followed by a dismissal, a temporary suspension with paid leave, and a State Ethics inquiry all within 27 hours — and all arranged at Pat Ford’s request?

There has got to be more to this story. There has got to!

Wednesday: Sparkle, Sparkle!

A month after battering the design as bland and too mall-like, planning commission members voted unanimously in favor of the project after architects tweaked certain elements to address their concerns. (P-G, Mark Belko)

As you can now see, the building will utilize electric power.

Asked about the criticisms commission members made of the Uptown arena’s design April 8, Sawyer said: “The last time they didn’t see what was shown today, the evening shot, which really tells the story of this design. The atrium in the front allows everyone to see the energy and electricity inside.” (Trib, Jeremy Boren)

See? Electricity.

Planning Commissioner Todd Reidbord complained last month that the…

What is he still doing there?

##

Come to think of it, what ever happened to the slew of board moves and appointments that Mayor Ravenstahl seemed to make last month, only to table? Are the Housing, Parking, and Stadium authorities actually permitted to transact public business without an active member of council sitting on them?

T.W.M. and the Audacity of Hokum

On more than one occasion, I’ve been dissed or emailed or insulted by people who, closing their minds and opening their web browsers, decide they can happily dismiss and reflexively vilify me just because I, on occasion, happen to agree with a guy (or a gal) they can write off as a neocon kook. You know — as if the world is divided into good and evil, as if they have the exclusive right to decide which is which, and as if that stance is not in direct violation of the ideals they, by supporting Senator Obama, claim to espouse.


And yet those sorts of do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do sorts of hypocrisies these days abound in Camp Obama, as Mr. Krauthammer — who is, I think, wrong about many things but still right about these (see how easy that is, kids? just a simple, substantive, case-by-case judgment; that’s a new kind of rhetorical politics you really ought to try sometime) — neatly observes: (Teacher. Wordsmith. Madman.)

O poor, maltreated blogger! For whom it is a necessary labor to judge Barack Obama savagely, compulsively, uncritically and exclusively on the basis of an association with a pastor — but to take the author’s own professional associations into any consideration of his work? How cruel, how unfair!

Someone was saying something about hypocrisy?

Because one important thing changed: [Rev. Wright] had the (what’s that word again?) audacity to insult Senator Obama. To question his sincerity. To suggest that he was just playing politics. In other words, as they say in those bad movie trailers: This time, it’s personal.

I suspect that, as much as the National Press Club bully loony pulpit, was the reason for the change of heart. And the sudden willingness to disown someone he once said he could no more disown than his own grandmother. Combine those two factors, mix in a newly energized press corps that, in the middle of a surprising but almost certainly inevitable course-correction, has finally decided to draw some fresh blood from Senator Breath of Fresh Air, and you get what we saw and heard but did not quite buy in North Carolina this week.

So much for unity. So much for a new kind of politics.

Well, there is another explanation.

It could be that everything having to do with Rev. Wright, and everything having to do with Sen. Obama’s descriptions of his posture towards Rev. Wright, is and has been so obviously remote from anything even tangentially related to the future of our nation or the selection of its president, that the two individuals are content to hold a partially scripted falling-out for your benefit, to say whatever words are necessary to comfort their respective audiences, and move forward.

(Unless you really think Sen. Obama hates America and is a one-man sleeper cell. In which case, we have no option but to write you off as unpersuadable.)

##

Which brings us to the confusion of many about “a new kind of politics.” As far as we can tell, Obama’s new politics basically consists of:

1. No stupid or personal attacks on opponents
2. No stupid public policy because it sounds good

Now, given that for most politicians this simple code of conduct must seem astoundingly angelic, it is no surprise that for them, every instance of an issue-based attack, every cleverly-framed argument, and every (perish the thought) public relations adjustment from Team Obama will be considered a betrayal of revelatory proportions, to be met with HAHAHAHAHA YOU’RE A HYPOCRITE!, thereby completing the Catch 22 with HAHAHAHA YOU’RE NOT TOUGH GET OUT OF THE KITCHEN!

However, in reality, we are learning that even in the 21st century, sometimes the only defense against a barrage of hogwash is a little more hogwash.

Because that’s what it was, and is.

The Comet does not, and has never purported to, support Sen. Obama’s candidacy because we expect him to magically unite the country and bring about a new kind of politics. As far back as we can remember, every presidential, gubernatorial, mayoral and dog catchorial candidate has attempted to escalate the drama and import of their candidacy just a wee bit. We’re not going to hold it against Barack because he’s good at it.

The Comet supports Sen. Obama because we want government subsidized health care, fair taxation of the wealthy, sustainable environmental regulations and a swift conclusion to our unconscionable military adventuring — the very same reasons we also support Sen. Clinton to a degree.

The difference is, if Obama can pull off a victory in the manner in which he is attempting — by staying focused on issues, eschewing personal attacks, rejecting false machismo and remaining a proud educated intellectual who is not somehow at odds with common folk — then he may actually usher in a period where sincerity and seriousness come into fashion.

It will not last forever — but in the interval, pundits and political advisers will warn their charges ominously, “Isn’t this like the gas tax holiday all over again?” “Isn’t this like voting for the Iraq War when you know it’s wrong?” “Isn’t this like obsessing over Rev. Wright for months on end, just to keep voters alarmed and distracted?”

As long as Obama can keep it going, the hogwash will be seen to fail and so will be utilized less, and we will all be the better for it.

That is our rationale for whom we support and why. If it pains our friend Mr. Hermann that others are defining him unfairly, he can always choose to put forth his own politics in a similarly affirmative fashion.